Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Neandertals Driven to Extinction?

DNAIndia is reporting on research done by Steve Churchill, at Duke which indicates that humans were hunted or driven to extinction by the incoming modern humans. They write:
According to a report by CBS News, Steven Churchill, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, performed an experiment to see whether modern humans might have killed the ancient hominids.

The test subject for Churchill was Shanidar 3, a roughly 40-year-old Neanderthal male whose remains were uncovered in the 1950s in Shanidar Cave in northeastern Iraq.

Neanderthals were the power-thrusters of the Paleolithic world, driving their heavy spears with great kinetic energy and momentum into bison, boar, and deer.

If Shanidar 3 had been injured by such a thrust, it would suggest that he had gotten into a fight with another Neanderthal, or perhaps that he had been hurt in a hunting accident.

But, if the wound had resulted from a lighter spear-from a projectile deftly thrown at a distance, with less momentum and energy, the attacker was most likely human.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that Neanderthals ever used throwing spears," Churchill said.
Where to start... Well, we've known about Shanidar 3 for quite some time—around fifty years.

Problem Number One: This has been suggested before. The problem is that the evidence is so scant. One might just as easily say that the same thing based on a single, isolated murder case in any city in any country. Is it indicative of modern human/Neandertal violence? Maybe, maybe not.

Problem Number Two: not everyone shares Churchill's views that Neandertals did not have hafted weapons1. There are plenty of scholars who are quite convinced that Neandertals had hafted weapons. This then raises the real possibility that this was Neandertal/Neandertal violence.

All in all, there needs to be quite a bit more evidence if we are accept this hypothesis.

1Here is a short, incomplete list of articles by authors who suggest that Neandertals likely had hafted weaponry of some sort.

Berger, T. D. & E. Trinkaus (1995) Patterns of trauma among the Neandertals. Journal of Archaeological Science, 22, 841-852.

Bower, B. (1999) Neandertal hunters get to the point. Science News, 4-4.

Brainard, J. (1998) Giving Neandertals Their Due. Science News, 72-74.

d'Errico, F., J. Zilhão, M. Julien, D. Baffier & J. Pelegrin (1998) Neanderthal Acculturation in Western Europe? A Critical Review of the Evidence and Its Interpretation 1. Current Anthropology, 39, 1-44.

Richards, M. P., P. B. Pettitt, E. Trinkaus, F. H. Smith, M. Paunovi & I. Karavani (2000) Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: The evidence from stable isotopes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97, 7663.

Shea, J. J. (1997) Middle Paleolithic spear point technology. Projectile technology, 79–106.

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1 comment:

  1. What is the general scholarly opinion (and yours particularly) on the so-called "Running Man" explanation?

    As I understand it, it's basically that H. sapiens was better equipped than Neanderthal for the long hunts required for the game that both became dependent upon following an ice age that wiped out more easily acquired prey. Behind it lies some (apparently) good evidence that although humans in general are notably deficient in speed, modern humans are uniquely engineered for distance, and that this might help explain our eventual dominance. Sounded good in the book I read (Born to Run). ;)